There is a general perception that India’s electoral history begins with the Constitution of India, promulgated on January 26, 1950. The Constituent Assembly sat for over two years and gifted to the nation what is regarded as one of the greatest constitutions of the world. But very few know that the seeds for this were sown at least three decades before. The conflicts and struggles of the 30 momentous years were no less exciting. Raja Sekhar Vundru, an Ambedkar scholar, has tried to capture all that excitement, often not very pleasant, in his new book, Ambedkar, Gandhi and Patel: The Making of India’s Electoral System.
While Ambedkar is universally acknowledged as the father of the Constitution, since he was the chairman of the drafting committee, not many know that he was extremely unhappy throughout the drafting process and even after its promulgation, as he was denied what he wanted for the empowerment of the ‘Untouchables’. Vundru captures in graphic detail the three decades of this struggle, with Gandhi and Patel constantly playing spoilsport for his scheme of things.
Despite intense hostility between the two, it was Gandhi who suggested to Nehru to appoint Ambedkar as the chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution.
The book starts with a brief description of the electoral systems existing globally and explaining why Ambedkar and his fellow members chose FPTP (First Past the Post) system—the Westminster model—as the right system for India for its simplicity.
Before the adoption of 1950 Constitution, the system in British India was FPTP, with separate electorate for religious minorities, designed to give representation to specified communities, namely, Muslims, Christians, Europeans and Anglo-Indians. The voters of each of these communities in a given area were grouped together as electorate (constituency) separate from the rest. They elected representative of theirs, exclusively by their own votes. In the election to the provincial assemblies in 1937 and 1946, there were separate electorate constituencies for religious minorities.
Ambedkar wanted a separate electorate for the Untouchables, now called the Dalits, which was constantly thwarted, particularly by Mahatma Gandhi, as the author emphatically spells out. The central event around the debate is Gandhi’s threat of fast unto death, whereby the untouchable seats were merged with general seats—joint electorate of Hindu voters and Dalit voters—by an agreement called the Poona Pact, on September 24, 1932. It’s noteworthy that Ambedkar insisted that Dalits were not Hindus but were a separate minority while Gandhi put his life at stake for not allowing Dalits to be treated outside the Hindu fold. The cat and mouse game between Ambedkar and Gandhi constitutes nearly half the book.
In his prologue, the author dwells at length on the limitation of the FPTP, where governments get formed even with minority vote—less than 50 per cent. In this system, the share of seats is constantly disproportionate with the share of votes. The most glaring example is the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 when BSP, despite a 20 per cent (third-largest) vote share in UP, ended up with zero seats. The debate on the unfairness of the system is likely to escalate in the coming years.
Ambedkar was an avowed advocate of universal right to vote, ever since he got the first chance to represent before the British in 1919, and on every occasion thereafter, till he got his opportunity as head of the drafting committee of the constituent assembly from 1947-49.
Ambedkar’s childhood was typical of his caste. He was beaten up for drawing water from the village well, not allowed to ride a cart even after paying for it (a story similar to Gandhi’s ride in the South African train). Ambedkar shifted to Bombay, where he did extremely well in studies and became the first Untouchable to get a scholarship to study abroad. Western education awakened his political consciousness and in 1919 he made his first political foray by appearing before this South-borough commission with the plea for Untouchable representation and civil rights. In 1920, at the Nagpur Depressed Classes Conference, he wrested the initiative and leadership of the Dalits from high-caste leaders of the Congress party.
Ambedkar drew great support from Winston Churchill, with whom he later developed a great bonhomie. Churchill’s 1931 speech was very significant. “To abandon India to the rule of the Brahmins”, he said, “would be an act of cruel and wicked negligence. These Brahmins who mouth and patter the principles of Western liberalism, and pose as philosophic and democratic politicians, are the same Brahmins who denied the primary rights of existence to nearly 60 million of their own fellow countrymen whom they call untouchable. They will not eat with the 60 million, nor drink with them, nor treat them as human beings....”
Ambedkar’s first notable success was his performance at the First Round Table Conference in London in 1931, where he established Dalits as a political class with the rights to representation in seats. Gandhi, on the other hand, was emphatic: “I am against political separation of the Untouchables from Hindus. That would be absolutely suicidal.” His opposition to the idea culminated in his fast unto death while he was lodged in Yervada jail in 1932, which forced Ambedkar to give up his case just to save Gandhi’s life—an incident for which he never forgave himself for the rest of his life.
Ambedkar’s hatred for Gandhi is captured by the author almost throughout the book. In his book What Congress and Gandhi have Done to the Untouchables, he wrote: “A worse person than Gandhi could not have been chosen to guide India’s destiny.... Gandhi came to the round table conference solely to oppose the Untouchables.... Mahatmas have come and Mahatmas have gone, but the Untouchables have remained untouchables.... As a politician, he was never a Mahatma. I refuse to call him Mahatma. He doesn’t deserve that title, not even from the point of view of his morality.”
Ambedkar’s unflinching loyalty to the cause of the Untouchables came out most clearly in the sensational speech in the Bombay legislative assembly on October 26, 1939, when he said, “I said this...as strongly as I possibly can that whenever there is any conflict of interest between the country and the Untouchables, so far as I am concerned, the Untouchables’ interest will take precedence over the interests of the country. Let everybody here and everywhere understand that this is my position.”
Vundru needs to be appreciated for his initiative. But the publisher has not done justice to the book by poor editing, making the text repetitive, besides the usual typos.
The tussle between Gandhi and Ambedkar was for the leadership of the depressed classes. Said Gandhi, “You are born an Untouchable, but I am an untouchable by adoption.... Without eradicating untouchability root and branch, the honour of Hinduism cannot be saved. That can only happen when Untouchables are treated at par with caste Hindus in every respect.”
Despite intense hostility between Gandhi and Ambedkar, it was Gandhi who suggested to Nehru to appoint the Dalit leader as the chairman of the drafting committee, instead of Western constitutional experts.
Like Gandhi, Patel was also opposed to Ambedkar’s ideas. Although he was present at the Yervada jail negotiations in 1932, he chose to be a silent spectator. Later, after Gandhi’s death in 1948, when he was to decide the fate of India’s electoral system, he opposed all proposals of Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly.
Patel’s determination to reject Ambedkar’s proposals was evident as events unfolded in the Constitution Assembly. Patel took complete control of the proceedings, particularly regarding decisions about schedule castes and other minorities at a crucial time during the framing of the Constitution. “Leave aside Sardar Patel, even the representatives of the schedule castes, the 30 ‘Harijan’ members of the Congress simply did not have the courage to support my proposal. What else can the stooges of Congress do save toeing the line of Sardar Patel?”, remarked Ambedkar. Patel wanted to abolish all reservation completely. Ambedkar felt so frustrated that he walked out of the Constituent Assembly and returned only after four days of persuasion. Reservation for scheduled castes in legislatures for 10 years was the concession granted to the Dalit leader.
The book is an interesting addition to the limited literature on the evolution of our electoral system. Vundru needs to be appreciated for his initiative. However, the publisher has not done justice to the book by poor editing, which makes the text very repetitive, besides the usual typos.
(The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder—The Making of the Great Indian Election)